Celebrating International Women’s Day: In conversation with Tracey Wood, Group General Counsel and Company Secretary

Balfour Beatty is committed to creating a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture which nurtures people of all genders and backgrounds and where everyone can fulfil their full potential.

Great progress has been made to embed inclusivity within the business and with our rolling 3-year Diversity and Inclusion action plan, Include Everyone, this remains a top priority; we respect individual perspectives and experiences and are open to learning and making changes based on different views.

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, our Head of Public Affairs, Veena Hudson, speaks with Tracey Wood, our Group General Counsel and Company Secretary about her first six months with Balfour Beatty and what International Women’s Day means to her.

1. Tell me a bit about yourself and your career to this point.

I started out as a solicitor in private practice in the 1992 recession. I worked for quite a small firm, so I gained lots of experience. It was an incredibly uncertain time to start your career with high unemployment. I kind of fell into construction law as that’s where the work was. I found that I enjoyed it, and I moved up the ranks and became a partner.

I wasn’t looking to go in-house, but I saw the role of General Counsel and Company Secretary at Costain advertised in 2006, and I never looked back.

2. #ChooseToChallenge is the theme for this year’s IWD. What does that mean to you?

In the past, I didn’t really challenge, I conformed. I’ve come up the hard way as a woman in construction law, which was a high-pressure, male-dominated industry, especially at the senior levels. When I moved to Costain, I was the first woman on the Executive Committee – and I was pregnant. I was clear that I got there through hard work and talent and that others should do the same.

I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t up to it, that I wasn’t doing enough or was asking for special treatment because I was a woman. The turning point for me was when a new woman joined the Executive Committee at Costain and said she couldn’t do meetings before 9am because she had to drop her two children off at school. She called it out, but no one judged her for it, they just moved the meeting time. She made me realise that I was perpetuating the situation. That if you don’t stand up and call it out, you’re just endorsing the status quo. From that point onwards, I committed to myself that I would call things out.

I think we all have to take responsibility and start challenging more where we see things that aren’t right.

3. What role do you think men have in promoting gender equality?

I actually don’t think it’s a male / female thing, it’s a seniority thing. Anyone in a role of any seniority should see it as their responsibility to promote gender equality. And of course, each of us should be doing our bit to support a diverse workplace more broadly.

4. How do you manage a big job and the rest of your life?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic recipe. We juggle like everyone else does. My children are 8 and 14.

Sometimes you do feel you are missing out – you aren’t always there at the school gates, or able to go to the coffee mornings. But I enjoy my job, so I prioritise the important things: parent’s evenings, being the one to take them to the doctor. I think it’s about finding your own balance.

5. Have you ever experienced ‘Imposter Syndrome’ (where you doubt your achievements and have an internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”)? If so, how did you overcome it? 

Yes, definitely. I think part of the reason I’m a bit of an overachiever is that I’m always trying to prove that I’m good enough. I know it isn’t only women who have Imposter Syndrome, but it does seem to disproportionately impact women and be linked to all the data showing that women are less likely to aggressively pursue a pay rise or bang the drum for a promotion.

I’m not sure I have overcome it, I just have to remember to challenge it within myself. And I coach others – men and women – and encourage them to challenge themselves in the same way.

6. What more needs to be done before we get genuine gender parity?

As I said, I think we all need to call some of this stuff out more. Having someone senior leave work to pick their children up sends a powerful signal that we support people having a sensible work/life balance.

As a business, I think we need more people in the front-line, operational positions, as role models, project directors, supervisors and so on, to normalise it. But we also need to be a bit more thoughtful sometimes when we’re organising things like golf days, having lengthy conversations about football, commenting on someone’s hair or perfume – are we unintentionally excluding people or making them uncomfortable? Is there a different approach we could take?

We also still have a problem with language sometimes and I think we need to be a bit more careful. We definitely describe women as ‘aggressive’, ‘shrill’ or as being ‘a ball-breaker’, when we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a man making a tough decision or being really firm on a point. I’ve never found it hard to make a difficult decision if I thought it was the right one, but on one occasion it earned me the nickname Cruella DeVil, which wasn’t very pleasant and I question whether they would have done the same if it had been a man making the same decision.


7. Did you have any particularly formative career points?

I’m lucky that I’ve worked for some really inspiring people who pushed me to reach my full potential – I learnt a lot from them. I’ve always had the opportunity to do what I wanted and I’ve never been discriminated against for being a woman – as far as I’m aware. But I have also always reached out and taken opportunities. I’ve seen some female friends and colleagues who almost self-edit and think they can’t take the next step because they have children. I have just never seen having children as a barrier to having a senior role. I think it’s partly in your head. If you are determined to do it, you can do it.

As a company, our vision is of a truly diverse workforce for our business. We want to be an employer of choice for high quality talent no matter what their gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, social background or religion, not only because this is the right thing to do, but because it makes us a better business. Read more, here.